vonFridey Mickel 31.05.2016

Context is Half the Work

Seeing comes before words, and culture can be defined at any given moment.

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I originally published this interview with Jen Ray in Fall of 2013, on a now-defunct Berlin-based art blog; I was looking for it a few weeks ago, only to realize it was no longer there. 🙁

The two of us met at my then-office in a hinterhof in the Gipsstrasse in Berlin. It was just a few days after her opening at Haus am Lützowplatz, which included a massive, all-female performance, and I think we were both still reeling from the experience (watching this crazy, badass performance, then hanging out afterwards and seeing everyone you had ever met in Berlin there.) The evening felt almost life-changing and looking back now, I see how game-changing for Haus am Lützowplatz it really was– marking a new era for the space and institution in what people expected to see there. The performance breathed the smoky air of Jen’s aesthetic, igniting her sculptural objects and works on paper, encircling the space and filling it inside with a horde of riot girls that seemed to be the animated heroines of her pictures. All the while, Mad Kate from the Berlin-based band The Hyenaz screamed modified Henry Rollins at the audience through a megaphonic microphone.

Jen Ray moved back to America in 2014 and is now living in New York City, but her aura still remains here. This talk still now speaks volumes and I find it intriguing. 🙂 I recommend watching the video documentation of the performance before reading further…..


I was just watching the video documentation of the performance; I felt a lot of power came from where you did it. In this exhibition. It made me laugh out loud. When these rock‘n’roll girls start walking. They’re being these pouty…you know? And the smoke. And it’s just a moment where you just say, hey, that is so cool. And at Haus am Lützowplatz a place that, until the point of your exhibition, had been known to be a bit…quieter.

The video is a record of what happened, it really doesn’t capture the energy and the craziness. I mean, the performer (Mad Kate), like, spit on people. So you miss that. (You see a few people in the crowd, and they’re like, UGH! Oh my god!) With the performance, I really wanted to find a way to interrupt the space, because of the conservative look of the building, especially in the front with this very bizarre staircase, which after a while I kind of liked. If I had my dream I would have put a ton of women in the front, a ton of women in the back, and had women sit on that balcony space in the front of the building too. Oh, and hanging out the windows. And, like, disturb the whole space with women. But, he only thing about the Haus am Lützowplatz I would have done differently is probably film it. Made it more filmic, instead of more of a record.


The words to the music were a bit hard to understand at first. Did Mia Sabelka write it? The composition?

No, it’s Black Flag. It wasn’t Mia Sabelka, it was Henry Rollins! Reinterpreted by a woman. For me, it’s so familiar. I know what the song is, but a lot of people were asking afterwards, ‘What is she saying?’ and ‘What is she singing?’ and they thought I composed it. I had to tell someone I usually pick out songs by other people but reinterpret them, in my own way. There’s another performance with a Bowie song, for instance.

Do you construct the music? Is it a sort of orchestration?

Kind of. My husband (Jason Forrest) is an electronic musician, so we sit down together we make a playback and then we sometimes we add a bunch of things to it, and sometimes its more straight, but yeah. People often think he makes music, but we work together. I’m always like ‘MORE BASS!’ I’m always yelling at him. I tried to work with someone else, but I was too nice: ‘that sounds good, but could we try a different way?…’ it didn’t work. It only works when I’m like, ‘I told you it should go this way!’ He’s the only person who can interpret that. It drives him crazy, but I tell him, ‘it’s only two weeks and then you can do something else.’


So, when you’re doing your performances, is it kind of like playing make-believe? Is it structured?

I’m like a director. I write it out very specifically, and I’ll tell you, it has to be that way. I don’t like when things are too chaotic for me. I like it organized. When you’re doing one of those performances, you’re asking people to do things. You have to be on time, have proper food for people to eat, tell them what to do so they’re not wasting time. If I worked with a group of people that were ‘my performers’, I think I could be like, ‘OK everybody, now we’re gonna be tigers.’ You know? Play it out. But it’s really not like that. I want them to have very specific ways of doings things, and sometimes, they’re not like that. So I’m asking them to find it somewhere in themselves and pull it out. It should kind of, like, cycle in on itself. I always tell them, ‘You’re doing this performance for yourself, so you don’t smile at the audience, you don’t even make eye contact. This is a ritual that you are engaging in, and that you’re getting power from, and that you’re having an amazing time, but you feel fantastic.’

Mad Kate in action.

Obviously there’s this order in there, you can feel it, but there’s also chaos. It’s like the chaos comes out of the order.

That happens because they are not robots and I’m not a fascist: cist. I tell them the order, the feeling, what we’re trying to convey. I’m giving them direction, but I want them to feel it, and I want them to step out of their normal boundaries. I’m encouraging that…within reason (laughs).

Your work broadcasts this strong energy, but it seems also like an alter ego of you.

Yes, it is an alter ego. I always say, ‘I am normal and so is my husband’, but actually, we’re not really normal and we do really crazy things and take strange risks, but the thing is we’re not destructive. I consider the figures in my work much more anarchic, disruptive and aggressive. I have my aggressive moments, but that’s not really me. I consider myself a relatively stable, normal person and I’ve had to hold down all these jobs. For instance, I was an exhibition-coordinator for a long time. I worked on these big-budget exhibitions in the art world. And then I did my own artwork when I got home, which was not so easy.


The pictures are great. You draw and color them?

Yes. The whole thing is me. Somebody asked if I have an assistant, but I could never get… It’s hard to get an assistant to do that. So I usually have someone to do very specific things. Then I started making the performances as a way of bringing the drawings to life. I wanted to make a tableaux vivant, but once I did that, people started moving around and performing and I started directing. It got much more lively. The performances are as if the people stepped out of the drawings. Then I added sculptural pieces that are also objects from the drawings that also could be used for the performance. So it became one big world of video, performance, sculpture, drawings, yeah, and…music.


I was trying to describe this world you spin together, and it is very much its own thing. Of course one of a kind, but it’s also almost Barbarella-futuristic.

It’s funny you said Barbarella, because I’ve watched that movie a lot. I have my problems with it, but I have lots of other inspirations that kind of tie into this, too. Like a million different resources. When I was a kid, we had a TV show called ‘Isis’. It was awesome, because it was much more feministic. Isis was a professor of Archaeology and she was digging for something and finds an amulet, which turns her into a superhero. She turns into the Egyptian Goddess, Isis, and flies around and helps people. Live action (not cartoon), which really ties into what I do.

I’m also very influenced by Japanese prints. The Ukiyo-e prints. When you know this, it all kind of comes together. I have to say, this work directly comes out of my always having been an artist and always having been drawing forever. When I was a kid, I drew these worlds and these scenes and always with women. Always. Then I went to art school and studied painting and drawing (just like everybody else). But I took extra classes outside of the school with these little old ladies so I could learn the art of watercolor. (I didn’t even tell my teacher, he would have been totally appalled.) Later, when I got to New York, I realized a lot of artists were using this medium. So then I kind of joined this of group of people especially working in watercolor, etc.

*Princess Takiyasha Summons a Skeleton Spectre to Frighten Mitsukuni*, Kuniyoshi c 1844, Courtesy of Wikipedia

With these techniques, I got to return to the things that I really like, which is building up these worlds and calling on not only an art history background, but also a pop culture background. I started to do something for myself artistically, to pull from these sources without worrying about my art professor’s disdain or, whatever. When I was in New York, there were also a lot of other artists exploring this, too. I was working on shows at the New Museum. Elizabeth Paton got popular, William Kentridge (who I love), and Marlene Dumas… I was like ‘OK, watercolor’. Really bold and feminine, but feminist and shocking. That’s kind of where it came about, but I would say like truly, the biggest art influence were the Japanese prints.


Do you see your work being political (maybe it’s a stupid question, but I’m just curious)?

That is not a stupid question, it’s very important, and it’s not asked nearly enough. The work was chosen for the Haus am Lützowplatz for that reason, they want artwork that is contemporary with a political base. In America and New York, I was very politically active, literally marching through the streets. I’m really into politics, listening and reading about politics. So…yes, very political!!!


Symbolism is a strong ingredient in your work. There’s an element always moving back and forth between symbolism and iconoclasm being good and bad things. Is it an actuality, or is it something that kind of comes out?

Yeah, totally, it’s there. I like the movement of Symbolism. I include all kinds of things, like people getting close to toxic gasses (some people are wearing protective suits and some aren’t). It’s a mixture of symbols and politics and what I’m interested in and something I think is funny and something I want to just try or whatever, you know, something I’m interested in at the time.

My work is funny, and it’s funny to me. For instance, in this double-piece that I have with this red skull. There’s this huge phallic monument with like a bulbous base. Men are not in my pictures, but they are. They are in the pictures. And for me that’s really humorous. In one drawing, when the Greek elections happened, I included this voter box at the bottom. It’s a voter box but votes are scattered on the ground, like nobody gives a shit. Voting time is over. Voting is obviously a symbol of an organized society. And then in my work, I mean, that’s funny to me. That’s deliberate. Like, who cares about these votes?


You were saying that you’re going to do some more performances and maybe some filming or something?

JR: Yes. For this last performance to happen, I think I had to have a foundation of many drawings. Then, I was like, ‘I think I’ll do a performance!’ (many would have thought of that from the beginning). For me, it’s only at a certain point, I’m like, this needs to be a performance.

JR: Now that I’ve done about five performances, I’m like, ‘I think I should make a film!’ (Laughs) It feels like this epiphany. I think I’ll probably expand the performances; I’m looking to do something bigger. A review I read about the show was basically saying there wasn’t enough room for what I want to do. In a way, I’m fitting this ball of energy (which is really funny for me) into a white cube (in the case of the Haus am Lützowplatz, a trapezoidal, like, you know, whatever). In a way, I’ve almost outgrown a cubed-spaced gallery for the performances, so I think what I’m going to start doing next is taking it out, making it bigger, looking for a bigger space and then maybe making a film. And the film would probably be like a series of moments and feelings, brought about by performances.






Images and video clip from Jen Ray: Courtesy of the artist.



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